Food safety is an everyday concern for foodservice directors. This is especially true following the numerous recalls during the past year that saw items from beef to peanuts to tomatoes deemed dangerous. FSD talked to Doug Davis, director of foodservice at 3,800-student Burlington (Vt.) School District, to find out how he keeps food safety a top priority at his schools.
What are the biggest challenges you have with food safety issues? How do you overcome these?
One of the biggest concerns we have is with our facilities because a lot of our kitchens are older. Another challenge is that there is never enough money or time for professional development, so you are trying to get everything covered in one or two inservice meetings before the school year starts or as you introduce new items. That's hard.
We buy foods that are further processed a lot of the time so we're not faced with cross contamination. Many of our kitchens receive meat already cooked. We try as new concerns come up to go out to the individual schools to do more frequent one-on-one training versus longer full-staff training.
In addition, the HACCP requirement for cooling is tough because we have to have everything down to 70°F two hours after it comes off the line, which is hard to do before everyone leaves for the day. What we try to do is gear down what we have left so that our leftovers are so limited that we either don't keep them or we have a relationship with our local food shelter and we do daily pick-ups or drops.
How do you ensure the safety of foods when you buy from a local vendor and not through a large purveyor?
I deal with 13 different farms-we do a huge amount of farm-to-school business. I visit the farms; I look at their storage and shipping. I physically go there and look. I discuss with them how I want it brought in. The larger farms that I deal with have walk-ins right on site, so that's helpful. They don't have refrigerated trucks, but the farm is only a couple of miles from the schools. You talk to the farmer and have them come in to see what you're expecting and how stuff comes in from your major purveyors. Many of these farmers don't know how you want things done. It's not that they aren't able, they just don't know. The only meat we buy from a farmer is USDA inspected.
I get a list of practices from my farmers. Not all our farms are organic, so I want a list of how they treat things, what chemicals they are using, etc. I have all this in writing so we have a list to fall back on.
What kinds of training have you found to be most effective for your staff regarding food safety?
We're in Burlington and so is the University of Vermont, and they have a great extension service. I bring them in to do all of my ServSafe classes. It's so much better than me doing it. To say that a representative from the university is coming to do this class is such a higher level of credibility. The employees are more attentive; they are more respectful. It's just a different dynamic.
The New England Dairy Council also does some great training. My district and facility is large enough that they will usually come to me and I invite neighboring school districts to attend as well.
How do you make food safety a priority for your staff?
It is No. 1 and they know that. We talk about it all the time. We have posters up. The trainings are front and center. Just because we have kids with peanut allergies and we are not peanut free, there is a lot of emphasis on cross contamination because of that issue. It is just very ingrained in everything we do. We try to never let our guard down. We try to make sure that everyone knows it's just as important to be careful when you are working with peanut butter as tomatoes or chicken. Everything has to be handled in the way so that it protects the end user, and for us, the end user is a seven-year-old kid.
We also get the whole school onboard. Our school wellness policy isn't strong enough to keep parents from sending in birthday party stuff. So we have to make it really clear that as careful as we are, food safety is the responsibility of the entire school. We have to hold everyone to the same standards. So when a club has a bake sale that could really become a problem. Now, there has to be a paid foodservice staff member at any event where food is served just so that we can oversee what's going on.
What advice would you give other operators in dealing with food safety issues?
The best thing that we have done has been working with the university. It really means a lot to my staff when they get that certificate from the university. My staff doesn't get the same level of professional development or professional days or anything like that because foodservice workers are unfortunately not given the same amount of props that educators are.